Beware of Partisan Politics in the Classroom

Peter Wood

As faculty members at Ohio State last week double-checked their syllabi, glanced at their rosters, and ran through the usual routines for the start of fall courses, some of them found a surprise in their e-mail in boxes. A senior English professor invited his colleagues to open their classrooms in the weeks ahead to organizers in the Obama campaign. They would first encourage students to register to vote and then, if the instructors were willing, encourage students to volunteer for the Obama campaign.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is the memo, from Brian McHale, with the subject line “How to turn students into voters”:


I’ve been in touch with a couple of campus organizers for the Obama campaign, who have asked me to pass along to all of you a request for access to your classes in the next few weeks. If you were willing, they would send along a volunteer to make a pitch to your students about registering to vote. This would involve five minutes or less of class time, at the beginning or end of class (whichever you preferred), and the volunteer could make him/herself available after the end of class to sign up students who wanted to register on the spot.

If you were willing, the volunteers could also take a couple of extra minutes to see whether they could interest any of your students in volunteering for the Obama campaign themselves. If you weren’t comfortable with this, however, you’d only need to say so, and the volunteer would limit his/her presentation to voter registration, and leave the recruitment pitch out; it would be your call.

I don’t need to tell you that voter registration is absolutely the key to this election, not least of all in the state of Ohio. (I don’t need to tell you this because it has been made so manifestly plain by those who have been doing their best in several states, including ours, to limit access to the polls in various ways.) I hope you can see your way to helping bump up the voter registration and turnout among this key constituency—our students.

The easiest way to arrange for volunteers to visit your classrooms is to contact Natalie Raps or Matt Caffrey directly: [address removed] and [address removed]. Alternatively, you could contact me, and I’ll put you in touch with them. Either way, please do it!

Democracy: love it or lose it.

Note that those two campaign workers, Natalie Raps and Matt Caffrey, are representatives of the official Obama campaign in Ohio. Their e-mail addresses (deleted here) are for Organizing for America, Ohio Headquarters. Caffrey, according to a pro-Obama Web site, quit his job in March to become a paid “campaign field organizer” for Obama in Columbus.

Raps and Caffrey, in other words, aren’t just some student enthusiasts who happened to find a kindred soul in Professor McHale. They are bona fide representatives of the Obama campaign.

Most states discourage faculty members at public institutions from using their classrooms for partisan political purposes, and I doubt Ohio is an exception. College courses at public universities generally should not be used to troll for votes or campaign volunteers. In any case, Ohio State has its own particular rules (see here) that encourage faculty members to “differentiate carefully between official activities as teachers and personal activities as citizens, and to act accordingly.”

But never mind the rules. The whole idea of professors’ subjecting their students to this sort of cajolery has the fragrance of abuse.

The pressure would be the same regardless of the political affiliation of the candidate. Rousting students for Romney would be as wrong as booking them for Obama. The point is that the college classroom should be reserved for the subjects that the students signed up for, not for the political enthusiasms of their teachers. The student who enrolls in first-year English composition ought to be learning to compose essays, not campaign fliers.

Professor McHale, contacted by one of my colleagues in Ohio, freely vouched for the authenticity of his e-mail. Yup, he wrote it. I doubt very much that he is the only faculty member at Ohio State who was approached by the Obama campaign with this nifty idea, or that the Obama campaign confined this effort to recruit student volunteers to Ohio State—as important as Ohio is to the November election.

My hunch that there is more to this is based on what happened in 2008, when the Obama campaign rather openly pitched the idea that colleges and universities should award academic credit to students who volunteered for the campaign.

blew the whistle on an instance of that at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which abruptly canceled a campaign-for-credit offer by some academics at the college. But it turned out that the same thing was going on at other universities.

I haven’t seen the campaign-for-credit scam at work in the Obama campaign this year, but maybe that just means I haven’t looked hard enough. The insertion of campaign operatives into college classrooms is clearly a branch from the same tree.

Professor McHale has performed an inadvertent service in his naïve willingness to put this scheme into writing. For other faculty members tempted to take up the idea, a few words of caution. First, you would be abusing your authority. Faculty colleagues will feel pressured to go along, and students, always fearful about their grades, will feel even more pressure to conform. Second, you would be further politicizing higher education, which is an institution that is already leaking public support because its leadership so often fails to distinguish legitimate education from ideological advocacy.

I’d like to see Ohio State’s president, Gordon Gee, intervene to make sure that this fall the students of OSU aren’t subjected to this sort of political pressure. The bigger issue, however, is whether the Obama campaign plans to continue down this path. It ought to direct the campaign staff in Ohio and every other state never to set foot in a college classroom.

I suspect my admonition will have limited effect. Maybe this one will work better. I am president of the National Association of Scholars, a nonpartisan group that advocates for openness and integrity in American higher education. I invite any student at Ohio State or any other college or university to e-mail me with the details of any instance in which a faculty member pressures his class by devoting regular class time to the sorts of activities described in Professor McHale’s memo.

I also invite any faculty member who is invited or pressured to engage in this sort of mischief to let me know. NAS will post a public log of the universities, courses, and professors, along with other pertinent data. I welcome reports of abuses by Republicans as well as Democrats or members of other parties.

Maybe some good will come out of this yet. Professor McHale closed his memo with the words “Democracy: love it or lose it.” It’s a civic-minded sentiment, but he seems confused. We don’t preserve democracy by undermining the independence and integrity of higher education. Preserving democracy sometimes requires the sterner stuff that it takes to say no to your political pals.

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's blog The Conversation.

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